Monday, April 30, 2012

HBO Game of Thrones Recap: The Ghost of Harrenhal

Ok. Obviously we left off last week and everyone wants to know what exactly Melisandre birthed. Well it doesn't take long to find out. In the opening scene Catelyn Stark and Renly Barratheon are closing a deal. Renly and Robb Stark will team up to fight the Lannisters. Robb will still get to call himself King in the North and Renly will look the other way provided Robb will swear fealty. Catelyn thinks she can sell that to her son but still wants Renly to negotiate with rather than fight Stannis. Kinslaying is considered a horrible crime. Renly scoffs at that idea and is characteristically primping when the shadow we saw last week appears behind Renly and stabs him through the heart. It seems to have a resemblance to Stannis. Renly dies and the shadow disappears. Renly's other guards appear and immediately blame Brienne. In a quite effective scene Brienne shows she is NOT the woman to be messed with and quickly sends her former comrades on a trip to the afterlife. I am impressed with the actress. Brienne is broken by Renly's death and wants to stay but the practical Catelyn points out that they need to leave like yesterday. And by the way that looked like the Bayeux Tapestry behind Renly. Maybe it wasn't but it looked like it. Nice touch. Littlefinger and Margarey urge Loras to scram as it appears that the majority of the army intends to switch to Stannis. Loras, like Brienne, would rather stay and fight but is convinced otherwise. Margarey reveals to Littlefinger her ambition is to be the queen. 

In King's Landing Tyrion and big sis Cersei share a rare moment of familial happiness as they drink to Renly's death. But that doesn't last long as Cersei is still po'd at lil bro for making a betrothal for her daughter Myrcella. As a result she doesn't tell Tyrion what the plans are for the defense of King's Landing. Tyrion isn't convinced that either Joffrey or Cersei know what they're doing so he browbeats Lancel to find out that Cersei's plans include wildfire (a napalm equivalent -similar to Greek fire in our world.)

As Stannis and Davos walk through camp ordering their forces Davos finds that the strangely serene Stannis is not interested in talking about his brother's death or what Davos saw that night with Melisandre. However like the late lamented Ned Stark, Davos is concerned with means not just ends. Unable to convince Stannis to fight using "clean" methods he appeals to Stannis' prickly pride by suggesting that if Melisandre is allowed to join the coming battle the victory will be hers not Stannis'. This appears to get through but in another example of you should have kept your big mouth shut, Stannis puts Davos in charge of leading the initial naval assault. Davos gives Stannis good reasons as to why he's not the best man for the job but Stannis is unmoved. Davos is in charge and that's that. 
Tyrion and Bronn find that rumors of the royal incest are well known enough to be laughed at in the streets of the capital. Tyrion also learns that he's getting a lot of the blame for Lannister cruelties. Tyrion goes to see the pyromancer Wisdom Hallyne (played by Roy Dotrice-this is special because not only is Roy Dotrice a friend of George R.R. Martin's, he is also the narrator for most of the audiobooks in the series). The pyromancers were favored under the Targaryens but for the past few years have been ignored. Bronn is skeptical of the military value of wildfire because it can be just as dangerous to the user as to the target and requires massive training to use correctly. But Tyrion is impressed with what the pyromancers have done so far under Cersei's command and orders them to continue to work under his direction. 

Theon is armored up and ready to take command of his ship but finds that his men do not respect him or the mission. They make that as clear as they can as soon as they see him. His sister stops by to make fun of him as well before they sail to attack the North. To further twist the knife she mentions that she has 30 ships and her men obey orders. Theon gets an idea.
Arya Stark listens to Tywin Lannister and his council discuss the war's progress. Tywin admits to greatly underestimating Robb Stark. Robb is kicking butt and taking names despite being outnumbered and up against more experienced generals. Tywin sends a cousin home for what he sees as defeatist talk. Tywin says that if it weren't for their blood relationship he would have taken his cousin's head.  Despite his greater rationality compared to his daughter or grandson, Tywin is not a nice man. Seeing through Arya's southern girl disguise Tywin forces her to admit she's a northerner and asks if she thinks Robb, who has gained supernatural prowess in the eyes of some Lannister troops, is unkillable. Arya replies "Anyone can be killed" but the subtext and the way she's looking at Tywin let you know who she's really talking about. And Tywin just might have known as well. I love Charles Dance in this role. Sent to fetch water , Arya runs across one of the men she helped escape from the cage, Jaqen H'ghar. He says she stole three lives from the Red God so she must pick three people to die in return. He has a very formal way of speaking and talks of himself in the third person. Arya chooses the man who tortured her friends, The Tickler.

Beyond the Wall , Qhorin Halfhand, a real bada$ Night's Watch ranger who once survived winter on his own, has discovered that the King Beyond the Wall , Mance Rayder, has gathered up all the wildlings and is heading south. The wildlings are more organized than before. Rayder is a former Night's Watch man and knows their tactics. Halfhand intends to kill Rayder's lookouts and then get close enough to kill Rayder himself, which will hopefully end the wildling threat. Jon Snow volunteers for the mission.

Qarth is a more diverse and peaceful place than Westeros. Daenerys is feeding her dragons and teaching them to spit fire on command. At a party Daenerys is shown a gem that causes or appears to allow a man to be in two places at once. The warlock who gave it to her invites her to the House of the Undying. Xaro is unimpressed by this and takes Daenerys somewhere private to talk. Jorah Mormont who by this time is pretty painfully and obviously stuck in Daenerys' friends zone is approached by a mysterious woman in a red mask who warns him to continue to look out for Daenerys.

Catelyn and Brienne are on the run. Catelyn wants to share the latest info with Robb and then head home. Brienne doesn't really have any place to go. It's in the subtext here but Renly was pretty much the only lord who honestly accepted Brienne as she was. And now he's gone. Brienne intends to kill Stannis, who she knows is behind the murder as the shadow looked like Stannis. Brienne swears fealty to Catelyn. Again it's subtext but this is pretty revolutionary stuff for Westeros, a woman taking fealty from another woman. This is a very strong scene and very well done.

At Winterfell Maester Luwin is overseeing Bran and Rickon holding court. Well Bran is anyway. Rickon is busy eating nuts. News comes that Torrhen's Square is under attack. Winterfell is short of muscle having sent most of the men south with Robb but Bran instinctively understands that a Lord must protect his people. Again, Ned Stark's decency and rectitude shines in his children. It makes a nice contrast to Joffrey's antics. Bran sends Rodrick Cassell with 200 men to protect Torrhen's Square. Bran shares his dreams with Osha that the sea came to Winterfell.Xaro, having figured out that Daenerys and Jorah are not an item, offers marriage and alliance. He wouldn't mind being a king in Westeros. He is ambitious. When told of the offer Jorah opposes it (obviously he doesn't tell Daenerys the real reason-that he wants her) but points out that she will not win in Westeros with only a foreign army. He claims that he will find her a ship. Jorah doesn't think that rich men get or stay rich by just giving things away to people.
Arya is giving Gendry fighting advice. It's ironic that Ned's daughter and Robert's son have taken a liking to each other although this is certainly not what either father would have intended. There's a scream and a thud. Everyone runs to the courtyard to see what happened. The Tickler has evidently fallen to his death. Arya looks up and there is Jaqen H'ghar, nonchalantly eating an apple just like The Tickler used to do. He holds up one finger. We see the briefest of smiles flitter across Arya's face.

*This post is written for discussion of this episode and previous episodes. If you have book based knowledge of future events please be kind enough not to discuss that here. Most of my blog partners have not read the books and would take spoilers most unkindly. Heads, spikes, well you get the idea....

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Music Reviews-Musical Theft: Led Zeppelin, Humble Pie and Others

There are (depending on the musical tradition you're using) a somewhat limited number of notes, chord progressions or modes that make sense musically and are pleasing to the ear. Some rhythms and tones just work for humans and others simply don't. So over time, musicians repeat certain patterns and modes. This is unsurprising. The trick to being a successful creative musician seems to be less about discovering something completely new than to come up with your own version of what's worked in the past. There are of course many musicians who do come up with totally revolutionary ideas but those people are truly rare and not who I want to discuss today. 

Just about everyone then, even most of the revolutionaries and visionaries in the musical world, is standing on the shoulders of those who came before them. We all know the Chuck Berry double stop riffs that started rock-n-roll in the fifties but it can be a little shocking to hear those same riffs being played by Pee-Wee Crayton, Goree Carter, Carl Hogan, Freddie Green or T-Bone Walker years before Berry was a known name. As great as Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughn were, each learned a lot from Albert King's work. And so on all the way back. 
But it's one thing for a musician to learn from and be influenced by his peers or previous musicians and something completely different again to steal their work and claim it as his own. One is the normal artist development and maturation. The other is cheating and really, it's criminal. Lots of musicians, artists, writers etc have done it of course but that doesn't make it right. If I were to write a serialized posting on this blog about vampires in a rural Michigan town called Caleb's Plot, featuring a troubled hero named Ken Steers, a vampire named Marlowe, a priest named Father Monaghan, and it got picked up and published, I would expect that a certain Maine writer of some note would send some nasty people to have a short, direct and highly unpleasant talk with me. 

Below, I list some of the more egregious examples of theft. Some of these you may have heard of, others not. Occasionally, the original artist or songwriter had the resources to fight back and get correct attribution. In other cases they didn't. These aren't cover songs where the writer was properly credited. These are mostly songs where the original songwriter credit went up in smoke and the royalties were not correctly paid. I first list the original song by the performer who either wrote it or is most closely associated with it and secondarily the artist who recorded it without attribution or put his name as composer. Some of the stolen music may indeed be arranged in more dynamic or exciting ways to my ear, but that's not the point. Arrangement is not composition. If it were then we could argue that John Coltrane wrote My Favorite Things and Jimi Hendrix wrote our national anthem.
A great many of the original rock and roll, folk or blues artists were often bitter about such things (lampooned here in the classic Redd Foxx skit) and with good reason. Everyone has an ego and wants to be recognized for what they create. Of course some people shrugged their shoulders and moved on. If you didn't have the ability to do something about this sort of ripoff, I don't suppose being angry about it all the time did much for your health. I can't stand the idea of people getting over on me so if I were in that situation I wouldn't be forgiving or forgetful. Somebody would have to pay. I would get mad. I would want revenge. My patience would be at an end. So it goes.

Chuck Berry wrote Sweet Little Sixteen and evidently was upset enough by the Beach Boys' appropriation of it as Surfin USA to successfully sue. Chuck Berry also wrote Little Queenie but I don't know if Berry made Humble Pie stop claiming the group wrote Natural Born Boogie. Little Walter's Can't Hold Out Much Longer somehow appeared on a ZZ Top album as Mushmouth Shouting but without proper composer credit.

Elmore James' Stranger Blues  has a slide riff and tone that would later show up in some Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynrd hits. That's okay influence I guess. But Fleetwood Mac "covered" James' Stranger Blues and put their name as writer. Not okay. The intro to Pee Wee's Crayton's Do Unto Others appears to have been "sampled" for the intro to The Beatles' "Revolution". I guess that's okay, no? A lawsuit revealed that The Chiffons' He's So Fine was the "unconscious" inspiration for George Harrison's My Sweet Lord

The Jeff Beck Group with Rod Stewart was rather allergic to giving proper (i.e. paid) credit for songs they didn't write. BB King's Rock me Baby shows up on a Jeff Beck Group album as Rock My Plimsoul while Buddy Guy's Let Me Love You Baby is changed to Let Me Love YouHmm, so I guess the dropping of one word in the title makes it a totally different song. Got it. The Jeff Beck Group also stole BB King's Gambler's Blues which they called Blues DeLuxe but "forgot" to give credit. 

The Rivingtons had hits with Papa Oom Mow Mow and Bird's The Word and were upset when The Trashmen came out with Surfing Bird  which didn't credit The Rivingtons. The Rivingtons contacted attorneys who forced The Trashmen to correct the credits.
Ike and Tina Turner released Black Coffee in 1972 with lyrics written very much from a black pov which gave a nod to the black power/black is beautiful movements of the day. This didn't prevent Humble Pie from covering the song a year later, adding one or two lyric changes and claiming writer's credit for their bassist. This may have since been corrected. Muddy Waters also had a hit with Louisiana Blues. For some reason Humble Pie also felt entitled to claim writer's credit on their cover of Louisiana Blues. Speaking of Ike Turner though, back in the day Guitar Slim had a MASSIVE hit with The Things I Used to Do. Shortly afterwards Ike Turner came out with The Way You Used To Treat Me which is almost exactly the same song as Guitar Slim's right down to the Ray Charles inspired shout at the end, except for that pesky little composition credit. JJ Fad's Supersonic seems to have at the very least "anticipated" Fergie's Fergalicious.

Of course saving the best (or in this case the worst) for last leads me to Led Zeppelin. They are a favorite group of mine but they didn't always give proper credit. Actually they usually didn't. And this is not just a question of putting your name on songs that were hundreds of years old and in public domain. That's still dishonest but not that harmful to other current songwriters. No, I'm talking about taking other people's work that's under copyright, erasing their name and putting your own.
Muddy Waters had middling success with the Willie Dixon written You Need Love. Led Zeppelin rearranged this as Whole Lotta Love but had to be sued to give composer's credit. Howling Wolf's Killing Floor has a really cool riff and beat which is probably why Led Zeppelin redid it as The Lemon Song. Again, a lawsuit was required to compel them to give credit. Bert Jansch's version of the traditional Black Waterside was redone as Led Zeppelin's Black Mountainside but Jansch's arrangement was unacknowledged; Jimmy Page claimed sole writer's credit. Bobby Parker had a hit with Watch Your Step. Jimmy Page was a fan and tried to sign Parker to a record contract. It didn't pan out but Moby Dick certainly seems to allude to Watch Your Step. Theft? I'm not so sure.
Blues-Gospel giant Blind Willie Johnson wrote Nobody's Fault But Mine as far as we can tell. We certainly know that Page and Plant didn't although their version gives them writer's credit. Blind Willie Johnson was one of the first people to record the traditional gospel Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed. This was later recorded as In My Time of Dying by Josh White and in a slightly different version by Bob Dylan. White's version seems to be the direct inspiration for the Led Zeppelin version which again claimed sole authorship by the band. Joan Baez had a hit with the Anne Bredon written Babe I'm Gonna Leave You. Led Zeppelin did a version of this but did not credit Bredon, a situation which has since been rectified. And lastly Jake Holmes wrote Dazed and Confused, not Jimmy Page, though Page's is by far the better known version. Holmes's lawsuit is currently pending. 

Page and Plant have by turns been dismissive or defensive about these issues over the years, often pointing out that all music derives from somewhere else. Perhaps so but I wouldn't advise trying to use their music without permission or credit. Because when it's money out of their pockets they have shown themselves to be fierce defenders of copyright protection. Jimmy Page wrote Kashmir and years later prevented usage of Schoolly D's Kashmir inspired Signifying Rapper for Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant soundtrack. Never mind that Signifying Rapper was itself primarily a updated traditional toast that goes back to before Black people arrived in America. 

Moral of the story? It's important to protect whatever you create. No matter what you create or how popular, amateurish, obscure or remunerative it may be, someone out there will try to steal it. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

HBO Game of Thrones Recap: Garden of Bones

One of the key recurring themes in Game of Thrones is that you need to be careful of what you ask for. This is made most evident in the perilous circumstances of the Stark children. Arya Stark didn't want to lead the life traditionally proscribed for girls and ladies. She wanted to do what the boys did. Well in a way she got her wish. She was running for her life with a bunch of male desperadoes and refugees until she was captured. She's seen a ton of violence and had to do some killing. Sansa Stark wanted to be betrothed to a king. Well she is but unfortunately the king is a capricious sadist who delights in causing her emotional pain as much as he does physical. Robb Stark wanted to be a great leader, like his father Ned. Well now he's learning that war is no game and there aren't any easy or good decisions in war, only less bad ones.

This episode opened with two hapless Lannister soldiers meeting the business end of Grey Wind, Robb Stark's direwolf.  It's not really explained well but Grey Wind has found a secret path that allows the Stark forces to flank and surprise the Lannisters. Shortly afterwards Robb has won another battle and killed five Lannister troops for every Northern man lost. Despite this Robb still has a chivalric (and perhaps unrealistic??) idea about war. We get to see the introduction of another Stark bannerman, the enigmatic and ruthless Lord Bolton, who urges Robb to allow torture of captured troops for information, a suggestion Robb angrily dismisses. Bolton is also not happy about using Northern forces to guard prisoners. There is the explicit introduction of some modern ideas about the pointlessness of war, put in the mouth of an attractive nurse. Robb can't debate the right and wrong of war but he likes how the nurse looks.

News of the latest Lannister defeat reaches King's Landing. Joffrey decides to take out his frustrations by having his bodyguards publicly beat and strip Sansa Stark. The court is shocked but no one does anything until an angered Tyrion intervenes. Joffrey and his kingsguard are of course bullies and have no stomach for standing up to Tyrion. Punching and humiliating teen girls is more their speed. Sansa Stark is too frightened to respond to Tyrion's kindness with anything other than repeating canned lines about her brother's treachery. In order to try to remove some of Joffrey's negative energy Tyrion sets him up with two prostitutes but this ends badly as Joffrey really is more interested in beating and hurting women than he is in physically bonding with women.
Cersei sends Lancel Lannister to insult Tyrion and bogart him into releasing her spy, Pycelle. Tyrion very quickly picks up on the fact that his cousin really has no business seeing Cersei at this time of the night unless they are bumping uglies, something which Lancel shamefully admits to. Given that neither Tywin nor especially Joffrey would be happy about this, Tyrion blackmails Lancel into becoming his spy. Tyrion knows how the game is played. Peter Dinklage owns this character.

Littlefinger visits the Renly camp and butters up the arrogant Renly beautifully. He also makes a play for Renly's wife Margaery (basically saying if you need a real man call Littlefinger) but she shoots him down in a quiet yet cutting manner. He then visits Catelyn and urges the release of Jaime Lannister in return for Catelyn's daughters. Littlefinger has returned Ned's remains (not shown directly). Michelle Fairley really shines in this scene. She is just so believable as Catelyn. This was the most powerful acting in the episode, I thought.
One of Danerys' riders has found the city of Qarth-a merchant city ruled by the Thirteen. The Qarth rulers will let her and her starving people in but only if she shows the dragons, something she doesn't want to do. I liked the wordplay in this scene. She is allowed in when one of the Thirteen merchants, Xaros, decides to vouch for her.
Arya Stark and all of her group that weren't killed last week are now prisoners of the most sadistic Lannister bannerman, The Mountain. As much for fun as for any other reason, The Mountain's men are torturing and killing a different person each day. This situation is utterly hopeless. These people are literally like chickens in a coop. Every day a different one has its neck wrung. We get to see the beginning of Arya's prayer, where to get to sleep, she intones the names of people she intends to kill. Nice. Just as Gendry is about to be taken and tortured, Tywin Lannister arrives at Harrenhal and puts an end to the torture, not for any sort of moral reason, but because he thinks it's a waste of manpower to have so many of his troops standing around guarding/torturing people. He has a war to fight. It's also better to have prisoners working for him instead of dead. It is interesting that both Tywin and Tyrion stop atrocities under their watch for slightly different reasons. Tywin recognizes that Arya is female and takes her for his cupbearer.

There is a showdown between the Barratheon brothers. Both actors raise their game a bit here. Stannis has no doubts that he is the rightful king while Renly has no doubts that he would be the better king. Catelyn Stark again tries to get them to put aside their quarrel and join the Starks against the Lannisters but to no avail. Don't get in the middle of a family fight is good advice in our world and also evidently in Westeros. Stannis gives Renly a day to come to his senses. Evidently Renly didn't do so because at night Stannis sends Davos with Melisandre on a secret mission where Davos must smuggle Melisandre near Renly's camp. I believe the actress playing Melisandre (Carice Van Houten) is using her own (Dutch) accent here. It sounds exotic. Melisandre is very well aware of the erotic impact she has on men. She makes Davos nervous as much for sexual as for religious or supernatural reasons. Anyway she strips and is quite pregnant. In fact she's ready to deliver. Something comes out of her -something shadowy, wraithlike and not remotely human.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Movie Reviews- Burke and Hare, Little Deaths, The Phantom of the Paradise

Burke and Hare
Leave it to John Landis to make an accessible and somewhat humorous comedy about an infamous pair of 19th century body-snatchers, who upon finding that the demand for fresh cadavers, exceeds the available supply, decide to meet that demand by murdering people.
Burke (Simon Pegg) and Hare (Andy Serkis) are the down on their luck Irishmen, who have immigrated to Edinburgh, Scotland to seek their fortune. As they aren't very good at swindles and confidence games they are excited (well Hare is, Burke mostly wrings his hands and goes along) to find that they can make a living by supplying Dr. Knox (Tom Wilkinson) with bodies needed for dissection and medical experiments. Knox doesn't ask questions about where the gruesome twosome get the bodies from. Knox views some things as required for the greater good. Both lead actors are extremely well cast here. Serkis just has a disreputable smirking goatish look about him which he uses to great effect in this movie. Pegg can look simple minded and guileless, which he often does here. 

Hare has not a shred of compunction about at first finding dead bodies to sell, later "helping along" elderly/sick people to meet their maker a bit quicker than they otherwise would have and finally just murdering people whom he hopes won't be missed. As mentioned Burke has some problems with this but times are tough and he gets with the program. Burke has fallen in love with a local actress/prostitute named Ginny Hawkins (Isla Fisher). He intends to bankroll her distaff production of Macbeth, as much for hopes of the obvious reward as any love of theater. Hare has no need to pay for feminine companionship as his crafty practical minded wife Lucky (Jessica Hynes) is just as lusty as he is. She also figures out very quickly what her husband and his friend are up to and finds ways to help.

Dr. Knox has to turn to the disreputable duo for his needs since his bitter rival Dr. Monroe (Tim Curry) has locked up the available supply of cadavers and made alternate means of supply illegal. Monroe and Knox are engaged in a battle for the King's patronage. Dr. Knox means to map the human body , for which he obviously needs a constant supply of fresh bodies. 
This was based on a true story and runs out of steam a little near the ending. It is a black comedy, so if you can't imagine being sympathetic to or interested in two lovable rogues who do murder for money and feel bad about it (well one of them feels bad about it) let this one go. Costumes and lighting are great and accents weren't too bad. I only had the subtitles on once or twice.
Hammer Icon and horror film legend Christopher Lee (probably best known to modern audiences as Saruman in The Lord of The Rings) has a brief cameo.This movie doesn't have any good guys. Narration is occasionally provided by the Angus the Hangman (Bill Bailey) who, as you might expect, has a rather cynical outlook on life. The ending gives a shoutout to what else, Animal House.

Phantom of the Paradise
This was one of Brian DePalma's earlier movies and shows a lot of the distinctive stylings that he would continue to be use throughout his career. It is also my favorite "cult" movie of all time. I was inspired to watch it again and write about it because the lead actor in the film, William Finley, just passed away. 
Phantom of the Paradise (PoP) works in the same genre as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, came out in the same time period and has more than few similarities. PoP is a mashup of The Phantom of The Opera, Faust, The Picture of Dorian Grey as well as a satire of the early seventies rock music scene, particularly Led Zeppelin and KISS. The thieving bad guy is named Swan (Led Zeppelin ran Swan Song records) and has a right hand man that is a dead ringer for Led Zeppelin's notoriously thuggish manager Peter Grant.
The final third and ending of this film is pretty bad and the special effects are sometimes almost deliberately pedestrian but that's not why I like this movie. This movie is great because it takes themes from the classic mentioned above and updates them in a rather inventive manner. Much like Don McLean's American Pie, PoP chronicles the fall (?) of rock and roll from love struck doo-woppers or innocent singer-songwriters to seventies stars who compete to be as decadent as possible and are only concerned about the next high or sexual coupling. The movie also is a (doomed) love story and a satire of the music industry.
Winslow Leach (William Finley), (his name is an inside joke at Cary Grant :Leach was Grant's real name but Winslow is not smooth, suave or good looking), is a painfully shy and somewhat naive pianist-singer-songwriter who is trying to get a record deal with Swan (Paul Williams-who also wrote the film's songs which are hilarious). However for the moment Winslow is making ends meet as the pianist for one of Swan's fifties knock-off groups. After hours and during breaks Winslow plays his own music. Swan likes what he hears and sends his top associate, Philbin (George Memmoli) to offer a position to Leach as staff writer and producer. All he has to do is leave his music for review and they'll be in touch. Excited, Winslow does just that and is somewhat surprised when he doesn't hear from Swan. 
Feeling that there must have been some sort of mistake he marches down to the record company where the secretary smiles at him and summons security to throw him out. Wimp or not Winslow takes his music VERY seriously. He goes back to the audition hall to confront Swan and is both flattered and angered where he sees a host of women singers auditioning with his music. He takes a fancy to one of them, Phoenix (Jessica Harper) as she is the only one who doesn't laugh when he tells her he wrote the song she's practicing. But the singing audition is also an casting couch audition (primarily for Philbin) and when Winslow is discovered he is thrown out. Eventually Swan has Winslow arrested, framed for narcotics dealing and sent to an experimental prison (funded by Swan) where his teeth will be removed. Finley's fourth wall breaking turn to the camera after sentencing and declaiming "But I'm innocent!!!" in front of the American flag has got to be one of the funniest and saddest lines in all of cinema. Mopping the prison floor one day the depressed and toothless Winslow hears Swan's fifties group butchering one of his songs. He snaps, goes completely berserk and after giving a few guards what for, escapes from prison. Winslow makes a beeline to Swan's Death Records warehouse where he tries to destroy every last single pressing of the stolen music. However he doesn't notices that a record pressing machine is on and suffers an unfortunate and face-altering accident. 
A few months later in the Paradise Theater Swan is running a group through its paces when a bomb goes off. Swan realizes that the disguised and disfigured Phantom is Winslow. He gives Winslow a voice box to help him speak. Swan offers to let Winslow write his masterpiece cantata , which will only be sung by Phoenix. And to close the offer, Swan gives Winslow a contract, which must be signed in blood....And things only get more interesting from there. If you can tolerate some dated references and some very bad KISS parodies, you might enjoy this film. I LOVE the original music written by Paul Williams for this movie. I can (badly) sing along with all of the songs. Again, if you're familiar with DePalma's work you might enjoy seeing the evolution of certain filmic techniques. But mainly I just enjoy the music. There are also some pretty good classical style pieces used in this film.  Look for a hilarious turn by Gerrit Graham as Beef, a rather fey rock singer who manages to channel Robert Plant and David Bowie at the same time. Graham steals every scene he's in. DePalma's Psycho homage with Graham cracks me up. Graham brings it. This was Jessica Harper's debut acting performance.  She also shows she's a good singer with Special to Me and Old Souls. The movie's theme song if it has one is probably The Hell of It.

Little Deaths
I can't state strongly enough that this is not a movie for everyone. In fact I'm not sure it was even a movie for me. It's a British collection of three short minifilms which as the title, a French metaphor for orgasm, implies, are all about the intersections between sex, violence and death. Story number 1 involves the supernatural. Story number 2 involves scientific progress gained at a horrible price. Story number 3 has neither the supernatural nor the scientifically implausible.
Story 1: House and Home (directed by Sean Hogan) involves a rich nasty couple that likes to bring homeless women to their home so that they may "play with them". Of course for this couple "play" involves the idea of fun that a cat has with a mouse. However as it turns out this pair of cats may have picked the wrong mouse to play with. In fact they may not even be the cats in the "cat and mouse game". This short makes some some very explicit class analogies. It could be considered an allegory about class warfare and lower class resistance.

Story 2: Mutant Tool (directed by Andrew Parkinson) depicts a scientist using Nazi era technology to attempt to develop ESP and other mental powers. This involves severely disgusting activities and the usage of a call girl as an experimental subject. Obviously this sort of body horror brings Cronenberg's seminal 70's and 80's work to mind. But it goes beyond that into some places I wish it hadn't.
Story 3: Bitch (directed by Simon Rumley) is probably the "best" or least most well written story. It details a highly dysfunctional relationship between an attractive but EXTREMELY domineering woman and her boyfriend, a wimpy "nice guy". About the nicest thing his girlfriend does to him is humiliatingly (and openly) cuckold him in their own bed. Believe me she did worse to him. Much worse. But of course every dog has its day, now doesn't it.
ALL of these stories are EXTREMELY EXPLICIT (the movie is unrated) and physically or emotionally brutalizing. Both men and women are shown in very ugly ways. There is male and female nudity. This is not for the casual horror fan. Although it wasn't akin to the bloody mess of the Hostel or Saw movies it was in that neighborhood. If you can tolerate that sort of movie you could watch it. It wasn't really my cup of tea though I must admit Story 3 was quite well written and paced. It has a 7 minute wordless climax (no NOT that kind) that stays with the viewer for a while. The music was good too. Story 3 dealt with the unpleasant truth that good or bad, people respond to strength. And with either dogs or people it is much easier to correct bad behavior when it first starts than if you let it go on.  But really I felt I needed a shower after this movie to wash off the ugliness. If I had read honest reviews I wouldn't have watched this film. So I hope this review is honest. Your tastes may differ, though.  If you want to temporarily venture somewhere depraved, this is the movie for you. All three shorts are shot in a dark murky swamp of blue and gray lighting with occasional blasts of stark daylight. Sound is good. The dialogue is understandable for the non UK resident, which is occasionally a problem for me with UK accents.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Brooklyn False Rape Charges: Darrell Dula

Imagine that you (or a man you love) were wrongly accused of raping someone. You're arrested, fingerprinted and thrown into jail to await formal charges. Now in the 24 hours while you're familiarizing yourself with jailhouse protocol over telephone usage, how to avoid unwanted advances, which gang it would be proper for someone of your race and ethnicity to join, when not to look into another prisoner's eyes, the importance of responding promptly to guard commands and other important orientation action items, the victim admits to the police and prosecutors that she made it all up and actually signs a document stating so. 
Well that's lucky for you yes? You won't have to stay a minute more in jail and perhaps you can see about getting everything expunged from your record. No harm no foul. These things happen and maybe you and the arresting officers can have a beer summit at the White House some day.
But wait, now imagine that the prosecutor decides to go ahead with charges anyway because either they think the supposed victim is lying or because they don't like you very much or maybe they figure they need to keep their conviction rates high and you look like an easy win. And in addition they don't tell you or your attorney that the victim lied. And they keep you in jail for a year...
Such things couldn't happen in this country could they?

But sadly of course they do.
A Brooklyn man spent nearly a year behind bars on charges he raped an Orthodox Jewish woman — even though she recanted her accusation a day after making it.
Darrell Dula, 25, was released Tuesday and will likely have the case against him dropped after being in jail since June 28, 2011.
“I feel good. Thank God,” Dula told the Daily News Tuesday night as he played with his 3-year-old son for the first time in a year in front of his Crown Heights home.“I’m glad to be home with my family,” he said. “I’m still in shock. I’m traumatized. It wasn’t a good experience. They took me away on my son’s birthday. It was heartbreaking.”
The stunning turn of events came after Brooklyn prosecutors turned over a newly discovered statement that Dula’s 22-year-old accuser made to cops in which she says he never raped her. The alleged victim made a complaint to police on March 31, 2010, accusing Dula and his pal Damien Crooks, 32, of being part of a crew who raped, beat and pimped her out since age 13.
A day later, the woman told detectives she was a hooker for five years and made up the rape allegation, records show.
“I once again asked [her] if she was raped,” a detective wrote in a police report after the interview. “She told me ‘no’ and stated to me, ‘Can’t a ho change her ways?’
The woman also signed a recantation, but the case proceeded and in spring 2011, a grand jury voted to indict Dula, Crooks and two others who were allegedly part of the crew.
And of course the prosecutor who directly handled the case, Abbie Greenberger,  is now blaming her bosses for the situation. I guess that makes sense. No one wants to be the scapegoat. I understand and feel the same way. Of course when I mess up no one spends a year in jail....

Greenberger said she found inconsistencies in the 22-year-old accuser’s account, but couldn’t convince her boss there was a problem.
“When I brought the inconsistencies to Lauren Hersh (chief of the sex-trafficking unit at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office), I was told that I didn’t do my job right and that I’m trying to dismiss the case and that I should work harder,” Greenberger told the Daily News.
See the problem here believe it or not isn't just that the victim lied, although that is bad enough and she ought to face the same criminal penalties that the man faced. No the REAL problem (and perhaps Old Guru and/or The Janitor can weigh in on this) is that the prosecutor did not disclose this information to the defense attorney and/or judge. I'm no lawyer but I kind of thought that the prosecutor had a duty to do justice, not just win a conviction. Maybe not.

Now why did the prosecutor continue with this farce? Could it have been that the District Attorney has gotten a little too cozy with certain elements within the local Orthodox Jewish community? Could the DA have believed the so-called victim was telling the truth before she recanted? Could the DA have believed this fellow was better off in jail, regardless of whether or not he actually committed this crime? Could the DA have been responding to a feminist constituency that doesn't always seem to understand that women are no more moral than men and are just as capable of mendacity?
I don't know. All I know is that I would like to have believed that if I were wrongfully accused and the police and prosecutors knew that then they would take the necessary steps to stop the machinery of justice from moving forward and throw that bad boy in reverse, to right before the time when they told me "You're under arrest". But honestly I knew that was an unreal expectation even before I read this story. All it takes is being in the wrong place at the wrong time and your life can suddenly change. I don't have tens of thousands of dollars sitting around for bail or attorneys.
How do we fix this?
My ideas are pretty simple. 
  • Hold prosecutors and police personally and criminally responsible when they lie or hide evidence. They do a necessary if often unpleasant job. But they should not be above the law or get a free pass for this sort of thing.
  • When someone lies about rape and it can be proven as a lie, send them to prison for the same amount of time that the assailant would have served. 
  • Stop with the fiction that women never lie about things. They do. The entire point of the adversarial justice system is to hopefully let the truth come out and in such a way that someone is not convicted of a crime without evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. This requires a defense attorney that is going to get after the accuser.
  • Stop hiding the victim's (or in this case liar's) name from the public. Perhaps if more people had been aware of who this woman was someone might have come forward earlier. Rape is a horrible crime and should be punished most severely. But in order to do that we must ensure we're punishing the right people. That's why we need as much transparency as possible within the system.
What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Man, Woman or Other: Miss Universe Pageant

Girls will be boys and boys will be girls
It's a mixed up muddled up, shook up world
Except for Lola, L-L-Lola

-"Lola" The Kinks
What does it mean to be a man or a woman? For me it's pretty simple. Either you were born with a set of XX chromosomes or a set of XY chromosomes. There are other obvious biological differences and of course a tremendous number of environmental differences which may cause and/or be caused by the biological differences. Other environmental differences may be totally arbitrary. There are some people who don't fit into this basic binary pattern but for the overwhelming majority of humanity, man or woman is a baseline accurate though incomplete description of who they are. I don't believe this is all that fiendishly complicated, really I don't.

So when someone has gone through the time and trouble to set up a beauty pageant specifically to celebrate, enjoy and judge female beauty, I don't think it's too much to ask that the would be contestants, actually, well be FEMALE.  Looking for the male beauty pageant? Take a left at the next light, drive two miles down and on the passenger's side you'll find the gathering for the male beauty pageant right beneath the giant sign marked "Who gives a rat's $$$?". But times change and apparently at least one pageant will now let transgender "women" compete. Imagine that.

The Miss Universe organization announced Tuesday it is ending its ban on transgender contestants after coming under scrutiny recently when a Canadian competitor was told she would be disqualified because she was born male.
 Miss Universe officials insist the change is in spite of, not because of, legal threats from women's rights lawyer Gloria Allred made on behalf of contestant Jenna Talackova. 
"We made the decision two days before we even heard that (Allred) was involved," pageant owner Donald Trump told CNN Monday. "Had I known she was involved, maybe I wouldn't have made that decision because she's easy to beat."  
Allred launched a blistering attack on Trump at a news conference a week ago, saying his pageant had no right to question Talackova's sexuality. "She did not ask Mr. Trump to prove that he is a naturally born man or to see photos of his birth to view his anatomy to prove that he was male," Allred said. In a Twitter posting Monday, Trump called Allred a "third rate lawyer" who "actually hurts Jenna." "Is Gloria a man or a woman????---- few men would know the answer to that one," Trump tweeted in a personal retort to Allred.
Kate Upton and Ariel Meredith are both attractive women. But only one of them would have been eligible to compete for Miss Black America if she so chose. An avowed atheist won't be able to lead the local Bible reading club. If you can't read music or play an instrument you can't be first violin in an orchestra. Men's heavyweight boxing is for male professional athletes above a certain weight. If you're a man, don't bother asking to join the Belizean Grove.
And so on. Sometimes certain characteristics, even if they are biologically set, really are essential to a particular job, association or social exercise. If a heterosexual man asks a buddy to set him up on a blind date with someone who is good looking, young and attractive he is not going to be happy if he shows up for the date and another man is sitting across the table from him. It doesn't matter that the other (gay) man may be good looking, young and attractive; he's not a woman and is thus excluded from a heterosexual man's realm of romantic possibility. That's not discrimination, or at least not the kind that ought to be illegal, shunned or discouraged. Now would anyone take seriously a complaint of discrimination from the gay man in this situation? I would certainly hope not.
I think there are some people that are literally hellbent on making everyone else accept their definition of themselves at all costs. You can call yourself whatever you like and I don't mind. You can alter your body to add or remove things at your pleasure and I'll cheerfully defend your right to do so. It should go without saying that I don't support calling people nasty names or committing or tolerating violence against them for their appearance or the choices that they make. We're all imperfect humans trying to make our way in this world. It's a free country. Rock on with your bad self! Wave your freak flag high! Live your life exactly how you want to!
But if you ask me to pretend that a man is a woman or vice versa I won't do that. If you wish to live by a set of delusions, fine. But don't think you can make me do so.
There are already beauty contests for transgender people. There is no need for a transgender person to try to crash someone else's contest. I don't see such things as a struggle for rights so much as I see them as (per Reg in A Life of Brian) a struggle against reality.  Not everything is for everybody. Pretending that a man who surgically and chemically altered his body to possess natural female secondary sex characteristics is a "woman" makes about as much sense as pretending that Sarah Silverman is black. You can do so if you want to but just leave me out. I think such things are thoroughly ridiculous and do violence against language, logic and simple common sense. But that's just me. What are your thoughts?

1) Should beauty pageants have the right to limit entry based on biological sex?
2) Are beauty pageants even relevant in 2012?
3) Should Gloria Allred have "ambulance chaser" and "professional virago" engraved on her business cards?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Secret Service Colombia Scandal

As you may have heard the President's recent trip to Cartagena, Colombia for the Summit of the Americas didn't go over so well. Not only did various Latin American leaders snub the US by refusing to attend or leaving early, some of those who did attend made it quite clear that if they had their way this would be the last such summit without a Cuban delegation attending. They took the US to task over the embargo and pointedly refused to issue any joint statement.

However all this was overshadowed by the alleged actions of some of the Secret Service advance security team, who upon arriving in Cartagena and being tasked presumably to scope out the area, determine the safest routes for the President to travel, and ensure the general safety and schedule for the President and his delegation, decided that they had some other things to do as well.

The incident came to light when a Cartagena prostitute refused to leave the hotel room occupied by a Secret Service agent until she was paid, said U.S. Representative Peter King, who heads the House Homeland Security Committee.
The 11 agents, part of an advance security team that arrived before Obama, had brought women to their hotel blocks away from where the president stayed this weekend, said King. All have since been placed on administrative leave.At a press conference standing next to Santos yesterday, Obama said the investigation into the agents' actions is ongoing, "and I expect that investigation to be thorough and I expect it to be rigorous."If allegations are confirmed "then of course I'll be angry," he said. "We're representing the people of the United States, and when we travel to another country I expect us to observe the highest standards."

It is completely unsurprising to me that people in a foreign land (even if they are Secret Service agents) would decide to take in some of the local sights and interact with the natives, so to speak. Men and women always find a way to get together. They always have and they always will. Prostitution is legal in Colombia. I really doubt that this is the first Secret Service detail to have allegedly engaged in such activities and I doubt it will be the last. I am a bit surprised though that professionals (I'm talking about the Secret Service agents, not the call girls) would let a situation get to this level. 

Discretion would seem to be the better part of valor here. Was this a new service? Who called the woman? Did the agent(s) who allegedly interacted with the woman know that payment was expected? Did an agent just come back in his room and find a strange woman demanding money? Did a pimp try to shake down an agent for more money than was allegedly agreed upon? Is this really a client/hooker exchange or is it a possible girlfriend trying to embarrass someone?  If it really is a hooker why didn't someone just pay her some money to go away quietly? Of the 11 agents recalled , how many of them had nothing to do with the situation but just had the bad luck to be in the same hotel suites when the stuff went down? Are any of these guys married? Perhaps they have some 'splainin to do...

All of those questions (and more) will be asked and answered in the coming investigation I suppose. People can and do compartmentalize actions and thoughts so it's possible, even quite likely that the President's security was never in question. On the other hand if you're busy thinking about the fun times you're going to have with Maria and Esmeralda perhaps you're not asking questions about why that fifth floor window in the next building is open. To quote Vito Corleone "What's the matter with you? I think your brain is going soft from all that comedy you play with that young girl. Now stop it and pay attention to business".

1) Is this much ado about nothing?
2) Does this feed into the image of The Ugly American?
3) Do you think this sort of alleged behavior is common for people traveling overseas?